Julian Bond, former NAACP board chairman, dies at 75

In the late 1960s, civil rights leader Julian Bond was such a compelling figure that he was talked about as one day becoming the first black president of the United States.

Charismatic and eloquent, he had numerous key accomplishments, including co-founding the landmark Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and leading numerous protests.

His public profile shot up in 1968 when he gave a rousing speech in favor of peace candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. His name was even placed into nomination for vice president.

"That nomination changed my entire life," Bond told The Times in 1987. He became a regular on news commentary shows and a favorite on the college lecture circuit.

Future accomplishments followed, including serving as board chairman of the NAACP. But although Bond remained in the public eye for decades — commenting not just on African American issues, but also on environmental matters, gay marriage and other topics — he did not fulfill his dream of gaining national political office.

Bond was not someone who connected well with grass-roots voters.

"I wasn't particularly cut out for politics," he said in the Times interview.

Bond, 75, died Saturday in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., according to a statement by the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Bond served as president in the 1970s.

His wife, Pamela Horowitz, told the Associated Press that he had been suffering from vascular disease. Bond and Horowitz primarily lived in the Washington, D.C., area and were vacationing in Florida.

"Julian Bond was a hero and, I'm privileged to say, a friend," President Obama said in a statement Sunday. "Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life."

Reaction to Bond's death came from many who worked with him during the civil rights movement, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who in 1986 beat Bond in a bitterly fought battle for a congressional seat nomination.

"He became one of my closest and dearest friends," Lewis said on Twitter. "We went through a difficult period during our campaign for Congress in 1986, but many years ago we emerged even closer.

"Julian was so smart, so gifted, and so talented. He was deeply committed to making our country a better country."

Bond, who was a dashing figure and a natty dresser, had as many as 100 speaking engagements a year. He wrote several books and was a popular professor at American University and the University of Virginia. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" and appeared in a handful of movies, including as himself in the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" (2004).

Despite his reputation for charm, Bond was not afraid to come out swinging against policies and politicians he opposed. In 1982, when he was a Georgia state senator with a national platform given his fame, Bond called President Reagan in a Times interview an "amiable incompetent" who is practicing a "new form of social Darwinism — survival of the richest."

As for Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Bond referred to him 1971 as "the hillbilly Hitler."

Bond didn't spare a newer generation of southern Democrats when he felt they were in the wrong. In 1976, when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter said there was "nothing wrong with ethnic purity" being maintained in urban neighborhoods, Bond lashed back during a question-and-answer session at USC.

Carter's words, Bond said, "were offensive to me. They cannot be apologized for. I think they are offensive to anyone who can trace their ancestors to other countries."

But for all his plain speaking, Bond didn't always fully connect with voters looking for an aggressive leader.

The loss to Lewis over the congressional seat was particularly painful for him. "I don't think I will ever get over that," Bond said in the 1987 interview.

Early on in the campaign, he was ahead by more than 30 percentage points. But Lewis, a scrappy politician in contrast to Bond's polish, forged ahead and won in a runoff.

"Julian Bond doesn't seem to have that aggressive instinct like Jesse Jackson," Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist, said in a 1987 Times interview. "He's a kind of intellectual politician in the mold of Gene McCarthy or Adlai Stevenson.

"There's a role in politics for the intellectual, but as the examples of McCarthy and Stevenson well illustrate, it's hard for such people to get elected."

Horace Julian Bond was born on Jan. 14, 1940, in Nashville. Both parents were academics: His father was an administrator at historically black colleges and his mother was a librarian. Bond recalled that historian W.E.B. DuBois and singer Paul Robeson were among the guests at the family home.

In 1957, Bond enrolled at prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he attended a class taught by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He also lettered in swimming and helped found a literary magazine.

But his activist side had been kindled — he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and led protests against segregation at public facilities. He left the college in 1961 but returned a decade later to finish his bachelor's degree in English.

In 1965, he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, but members of the Legislature blocked him from taking his seat, primarily because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1966 for him to finally take his post. He stayed in the state Legislature, first in the House and then the Senate, until 1987.

That was a particularly rough year for Bond. His estranged wife told police that he was addicted to cocaine — he denied it and she later recanted, but the marriage dissolved and he said many friends abandoned him. He was in serious debt from his failed congressional campaign. And his appearance, which had always been commanding, suffered as he lost weight.

"He surely took a fall," his friend Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University, told the Washington Post in 1998. "For all of us who went through the heat of the '60s, there really was a post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Bond eventually seemed to rally on several fronts. He married Horowitz, an attorney, in 1990. In 1998, he took over as board chairman of the NAACP at a time when the organization was mired in debt and seemed woefully dated. He brought it back into the news with fiery statements in opposition to then-President George W. Bush.

Bond also became known as an ardent backer of LGBT rights, to the dismay of more conservative African American groups.

As always, the main thrust of his activist life was civil rights, a battle he expected never to end.

"There is no finish line in this fight," he told The Times in 1998. "You always have to keep on running. But that doesn't mean you can't have successes.

"You can have a victory. But then you have to start again."

In addition to his wife, Bond is survived by daughters Julia Bond and Phyllis McMillan; sons Jeffrey, Michael and Horace; sister Jane Moore; brother James; and eight grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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